When I visited the Notre Dame Cathedral last year, I walked to the back of a line that stretched dozens of tourists away from its front doors.
Behind the other eager visitors, my friends and I shuffled quietly into the building before gazing up at the stained glass windows. A friend who was living in Paris told me she doesn’t always go to church. But she’s often been to Notre Dame.
Catholics across the world are devastated by the fire that enveloped the cathedral on Monday, but the tragedy should devastate us all.
“It goes beyond religion. It goes beyond art,” architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen told France 24. “It has taken the weight of being a national symbol.” As an example, Cohen said after the Germans left Paris in 1944, French Gen. Charles de Gaulle celebrated Mass at the cathedral as a public gesture.
“It becomes a message of national, European, and — I would say — international grief,” Cohen said. Some glass windows in the cathedral, which was completed in 1345, had been shattered during the liberation.
“To me, Notre-Dame is the heart and soul of Paris, the heart and soul of France,” said Marie-Claire Morellec, chairwoman of the French department at Hillsdale College. “It has witnessed centuries of historical events, from Napoleon’s wedding to the Te Deum Mass attended by De Gaulle.”
Morellec, who grew up in France, said she’s never visited Paris without stopping by Notre Dame. She would always light a candle for her father, who was in the city during World War II.
About 13 million people visit Notre Dame each year, and the cathedral is one of Europe’s top tourist attractions. Now French President Emmanuel Macron has declared the fire enveloping it a national emergency. Its spire and roof have fallen, and city officials have little hope for its recovery.
Yet Notre Dame has undergone many renovations since its construction began in 1160. For a site with so much cultural significance, the cathedral will not remain in ash.
“I know it will take time,” Morellec said, “but Notre-Dame will be rebuilt, restored.”